Military kids feel the stress of deployment

    Military kids dealing with the deployment of a parent face many challenges, and increasingly, they are having a tough time handling the stress and worry.

    Military kids dealing with the deployment of a parent face many challenges, and increasingly, they are having a tough time handling the stress and worry.

    New statistics from the Defense Department show that the number of mental health visits by military children has doubled since the beginning of the Iraq War, from 1 million to 2 million. Military officials, psychologist, and family organizations are trying to find ways to help them cope – and kids are reaching out to help each other.

    More info:
    For Photos and more stories, go to WHYY.org/impactofwar
    And listen to Radio Times today at 10:00, when we’ll continue the conversation on military children.

    Listen:

    [audio:090805msarmykids.mp3]

    It’s a hot and muggy day, and summer campers at Villanova University are signing each other’s T-Shirts, and sharing soccer balls and cold drinks.

    Some of them share something else – the experience of having a parent deployed in a war zone: [two different kids speak]

    Military kids at Operation Purple Camp at Villanova University. From the left: McKenzie Ott, Adam Washington, Victoria Crutchfield, camp director Erica Rubin
    Military kids at Operation Purple Camp at Villanova University. From the left: McKenzie Ott, Adam Washington, Victoria Crutchfield, camp director Erica Rubin
    Victoria: I was extremely sad because, it was like, I know what happens over there and I didn’t want it to happen to my mom.

    Adam: I was constantly worried about him because he was doing all kinds of stuff.

    Victoria and Adam were participating in “Operation Purple” a nation-wide network of summer camps for children who have experienced deployment of one or both parents.

    The prolonged stress of having a parent serve in a war zone affects children in different ways says Oklahoma VA psychologist Dr. Michelle Sherman. She recently spoke at a conference on military children in Philadelphia:

    Sherman:We have even seen research with little children, ages 3 – 5 with difficulties with attention, with sleep, with eating with anxiety. There has been research on preteens and teens that also documents increased depression and anxiety, and we’re actually seeing physiological changes such as kids whose parents are deployed have higher blood pressure.

    17 year old Victoria Crutchfield worried constantly during her mother’s 18 months deployment in Iraq – and found herself having catastrophic thoughts every time the phone rang:

    Victoria: It would come up on the caller ID and it would say US Army, I got really scared, because I don’t know if that’s my mom calling, or THEM calling, saying that I no longer have a mother. For a while, I had to have my grandmother answer the phone, because I couldn’t take the idea of thinking that my mom could ever leave my life.

    Military kids also deal with changed situations at home – and often have to take on new roles. Seventeen-year-old Adam Washington is the oldest of three siblings. He says his dad explained his new responsibilities before deployment:

    Adam: He would say “Alright Adam you are the man of the house, if you see something broken, try to fix it, if you see your mom is stressed, go help her out.

    New roles, pressure, worry – were the kinds of issues chaplain Joanne Martindale anticipated when 3000 members of the New Jersey National Guard were deployed to Iraq last year – so she started several support groups for teens and kids:

    Martindale: We’ll put them in circles, we’ll make pictures, about you know, what was the best thing or funnest thing you did with dad or mom, and then they don’t feel so alone.

    Victoria Crutchfield felt this power of connection when she came to Operation Purple camp:

    Victoria: Oh my gosh, there is a whole bunch of people that aren’t even that far away from my house and they all know what I’m going through, and we all feel the same. And I can open up and cry in front of a group of people that knew exactly how I felt.

    In addition to connecting kids with each other, psychologist Michelle Sherman suggests different coping skills:

    Sherman: Such as relaxation strategies, abstracting and having fun, just being able to be a kid and not worry about some of these things, there is the importance for the whole family of maintaining a routine – this is time for your home work, this is bed time…

    Westpoint Psychologist Michael Matthews says the military should get a better sense of what makes kids resilient. He is looking for clues in essays written by military children, to find out what helps them get through a tough time:

    Matthews: Sense of humor, love of learning, social intelligence; turning to their friends and their peer group for social support, gratitude – really being thankful for what you DO have.

    These skills, says Matthews, could eventually be taught to military kids in school or at home.

    Both Adam and Victoria feel that their experience has taught them a lot about who they are, and how to deal with adversity. For them, the worry and anxiety are over for now, both their parents came home safely.

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